When Lizzie Baker finished her A-levels, she had a love of literature but no idea what to do next. Five years on, she’s just completed her degree in English at University Centre Peterborough (UCP) has discovered a love of teaching through uni and is already firmly on her career path – working as a supply teacher prior to teacher training in September. The Moment talked to her about her experiences.
First of all, what made you want to go to university and study English?
Well, I wanted to go to uni anyway – I knew that was something I wanted to do. But I just really couldn’t decide. They put so much pressure on you when you leave school, telling you that you need to choose what to do for the rest of your life. I also knew I wanted to do English – that was all I really enjoyed – but I wasn’t really sure what career options there were. I thought, if I sign myself up for three years of that, what will I do with it? I had finished my A-levels and passed them, but because I wasn’t sure I decided to have two years out, and went to college to study photography. I ended up getting a triple distinction star and a Norfolk scholar award, but I didn’t really enjoy it. I found it boring. I just really liked English! So after those two years, I knew English was what I really wanted to do. So I didn’t have like a gap year or go traveling. I studied that whole time and was also working as a waitress in a fish and chip shop in Wisbech. Since A-levels I’ve always done a job and studied, so I’m used to that. So I’m kind of excited for September to do my teacher training and for it to just be one thing!
Tell us about that…
It’s at Teach East, which is a Peterborough-based provider of teacher training. I wanted to do teacher training but I also wanted to stay local. I’ve always wanted to stay local, which is also partly why I chose to UCP for my degree. In fact, two people in the year above me had gone to Teach East so I was aware of the course. I went and interviewed for it, and we had to teach mini-lessons for half an hour to a little group of Year 8s while being observed. I was terrified! I’d been supply teaching, but obviously as a supply teacher you don’t plan the lessons, so I went on the National Curriculum online and two of my UCP tutors gave me one-to-one sessions, partly just to build up my confidence. And then I went for the interview, very nervous. Afterwards, they asked me to step out the room for two minutes and said they’d decide and call me back in and tell me if I got it or not. I must have been out of that room for no more than a minute when they came back to get me – and I thought ‘this is either really good or really bad…’. But they said: ‘We’ve been doing this a long time and you were the best interview we’ve had in 10 years.’ I just sat there thinking ‘is this a dream..?’ I didn’t even know what to say. I was just like: ‘Oh, OK, I’ll see you in September!’ And then I went straight from there back to the chip shop!
Was it good to have that confirmation that you were doing the right thing?
Yes, it’s so nice when other people recognise it, because I knew I must be on the right track. And it was a bit weird how I got my supply teaching job. Obviously I was not a qualified teacher at that point, but we had a work experience module coming up at UCP and one of my tutors came up to me with a poster. A supply company had jobs going for teaching assistants and teachers. I had already had some experience as a teaching assistant in a primary school, which I also did for a work experience module at uni, but I always knew I wanted to work with older kids. So I went for it. And I thought I’d just get the teaching assistant position, but it turned out I got the teacher one. I didn’t even know which one I got until I walked into the first school! They rang me up and said: ‘You’ve got the place – can you go to this school tomorrow?’ So I turned up and I still didn’t know if I was going to be just assisting or not. Then in reception, they just gave me these registers and it was like ‘Off you go!’. But I wasn’t nervous that first lesson. I walked in, prepared the classroom before the students came in and then stood at the front of the class. And I just remember thinking: ‘I’m not nervous at all… This feels natural.’
What ages do you teach?
In schools I teach anywhere in between 12 and 17 year olds – right up to A-level. But I also teach adults in prison. When I went for the interview with their supply teaching company, they said they sometimes do work in prisons, and would I be up for that? And I quite like to just say yes to any opportunity. It might turn out to be really good, and if it doesn’t, then I’ll just not do it again! But I loved teaching in the prison. I think after I’ve done my teacher training, I’d like to do that full-time. It was really rewarding. Sometimes the kids in school act like they don’t want to be there, but the people you teach in prison know they need those qualifications to start again and to avoid the things that maybe got them in there in the first place. I like supporting them doing that.
Tell me about the degree and your experience at UCP…
That experience was really, really good. I found the first year the most difficult because I hadn’t written an essay for two years, but then I got a couple of firsts. And I was like, oh, maybe I can do this… And because we had such a small class, I really think that helped me achieve so much more. I’ve got firsts in everything this year. We would have two hour seminars, and because the class was small you could really get into the subject and get your questions answered. And when we did drafts of essays they would get feedback straight away. I like that about a small, local university, because if you go somewhere where there are 100 people in a lecture hall, how are you ever going to get heard or noticed?
Was that also helpful in career terms?
Yes, my teachers helped me prepare for the interview and were really encouraging. From Year One we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do with our lives and would throw questions at them about what qualifications we needed and what kind of jobs are were in this career path, and they would be researching to help us figure out what we’re going to do with our lives. I had thought about teaching, but wasn’t fully decided when I started my degree, so UCP helped me with that. And also in the second year, one of the UCP tutors got us an opportunity with Peterborough Museum, and we ended up publishing a book. So we have our names on a book on sale in Peterborough Museum now!
Obviously you’re into literature, but did you discover new things on your degree that you would not have anticipated?
We did 1950s literature, and there was James Bond on it. And I thought, I’m gonna hate that… And then, once we studied it, it became my favourite! I actually wrote my essay on it. And on the Contemporary module I picked two books about the Fens, because it’s where I live and I love how beautiful the landscape is, and now I’m involved with a historical project in the village I live in, telling the story of the Fens and the history of the people who live here. I only realised how much I loved it through doing that essay.
Was it an advantage doing your degree a bit later?
Definitely. If you go straight to university after school you arrive at 18. So young! I know I only did two extra years, but it just gave me so much more perspective. It gives me time to learn to drive, which obviously helped me get into uni, and it gave me time to find my job. It gives you more maturity, I think. So when things are thrown at you like a 3,000 word essay, instead of crying about it, you just sort of learn to cope with it! And I had two more years to sit and reason with myself about what I really wanted to do in the future. That gave me a really clear path.
Is there anything you would say to somebody sort of like, some knowledge about their studies at the moment?
I think university is a great way to go anyway. I think people who are put off student loans have not looked into it enough. It’s not the same as a normal loan, you would never get a normal loan from a bank that was that good! It’s a once in a lifetime thing, and it can open up so many opportunities – things that I never even would have discovered or would have got the chance to do without going there. And I think people really need to think whether they want to stay locally or not. There’s a general feeling that you have to move away, and that you’re some kind of sad sack if you don’t. But I have my job here, I have my boyfriend here, I have my dog here, which was a big factor! I didn’t want to leave all that. And I know a few people who have moved away to university and it’s all just been too much. Because it’s such a big change, that you’re starting in a place you’ve never heard of, you don’t know any of the people, you’re living with strangers. It’s not worth it if you don’t enjoy it, because it’ll be a long three years.
To find out more about University Centre Peterborough and the courses it offers, visit: www.ucp.ac.uk